In gay and lesbian history, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 often get most, if not all, of the credit for sparking the gay liberation movement. There is good reason for this. The riots did help spur the largest political mobilization of gays and lesbians in history. But way too often, very little attention is paid--by lay(wo)man and non-LGBT historian alike--to the groundwork laid by the early "homophile" organizations of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as the Mattachine Society. If you're wondering about the word "homophile," Wikipedia sums the history of the word up quite succinctly:
The term homophile is favoured by some because it emphasizes love ("-phile" from Greek φιλία) rather than sex. Coined by the German astrologist, author and psychoanalyst Karl-Günther Heimsoth in his 1924 doctoral dissertation "Hetero- und Homophilie," the term was in common use in the 1950s and 1960s by homosexual organizations and publications; the groups of this period are now known collectively as the homophile movement.Of course, the history of gays and lesbians does not begin in the 1950s with what has been dubbed the homophile movement. If you read historian George Chauncey's groundbreaking book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of a Gay Male World, 1890-1940, you'll see that urban gay culture can be traced all the way back to the Progressive Era. But for the purposes of this diary, I'd like to talk about one specific homophile organization that rarely gets much attention (but really should, as you'll see): the Daughters of Bilitis, the first exclusively lesbian organization in the United States.
If homophile organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis get any real attention, they are remembered as timid, accommodationist groups that did not seriously challenge heterosexist society. That is a notion that should be put to rest, and I will attempt to do so in this diary.
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Telling the history of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) is not something that can be done (or done well, at least) in a single diary. But I will try to offer a brief, accurate overview of this organization while pointing you in the direction of sources that will offer a more complicated understanding of the DOB and the beginnings of the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.
The DOB was spearheaded in the year 1955 by a lesbian couple, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin (pictured, respectively, to the left). Eight women--Lyon, Martin, and six others--made up the organization in the early days. Growth would be slow for the young DOB, but it would eventually have over a hundred members and chapters in urban centers on both coasts. The organization's name came from a book of poetry about lesbians called Songs of Bilitis, and the rather non-lesbian-sounding coded name, in the founders' eyes, kept the DOB and its members safe. Of course, it ultimately didn't work, because the FBI eventually infiltrated the organization, and the DOB was also exploited in the 1959 mayoral race in San Francisco. From lesbian historian Lilian Faderman's book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America:
Daughters of Bilitis...understood lesbians' fears that joining the group would expose them to the danger of being harassed as perverts. Recognizing the need for lesbian anonymity, DOB tried to overcome those fears by pledging secrecy to their membership in the best of faith. At meetings a greeter would stand at the door and say, "I'm --. Who are you? You don't have to give me your real name, not even your real first name." The Ladder, which was DOB's official magazine, even ran articles quoting an attorney who stressed that lesbians had "nothing to fear in joining DOB," and they assured the readers: "your name is safe"--that there were no reasons to worry about the magazine's mailing list falling into the wrong hands, that the constitution guaranteed freedom of the press, and that a 1953 Supreme Court decision said a publisher did not have to reveal the names of purchasers of reading material, even to a congressional investigating committee.Remember, the 1950s were not a hospitable time for gays and lesbians in the United States. From the post-WWII purge of gays and lesbians from the military (described in detail in Allan Bérubé's book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two) to the "Lavender Scare" that forced hundreds of gays and lesbians out of the federal government during McCarthyism (detailed in David Johnson's book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government), the homophobic context should be considered when remembering DOB's beginnings. The DOB was formed as a middle-class, white social group that offered public education and participated in research activities--in other words, an alternative to the butch-femme lesbian bar culture that had taken root in major American urban centers. But before crediting white, middle-class women with sparking the movement for lesbian rights, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy's and Madeline D. Davis's words in their study of the Buffalo lesbian bar culture (Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community) should be remembered:
But such legal protection apparently did not apply to lesbians. Daughters of Bilitis could not know that informants had actually infiltrated DOB in the 1950s and were supplying the FBI and CIA with names of the organization's members. The FBI file on DOB stated, as through the mere fact in itself were evidence of the organization's subversiveness, "The purpose of [DOB] is to educate the public to accept the Lesbian homosexual into society."
Nor was DOB free from local harassment. During the 1959 mayoral campaign in San Francisco, Russell Wolden challenged the incumbent, George Christopher, by saying that Christopher had made San Francisco a haven for homosexuals. Wolden's scare tactics campaign literature highlighted DOB:You parents of daughters--do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family everything is all right...To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, make yourself acquainted with the name Daughters of Bilitis.
The Buffalo evidence suggests that the lesbian homophile organizations grew out of a working-class lesbian tradition--women who were conscious of lesbians as a group, from socializing in the bars--rather than a middle-class tradition of isolated individuals and couples.The DOB is not remembered as a radical organization. Its statement of purpose is often quoted to show how mild and accommodationist the organization was:
A WOMEN'S ORGANIZATION FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROMOTING THE INTEGRATION OF THE HOMOSEXUAL INTO SOCIETY BY:Indeed, by today's post-Stonewall standards, the DOB was an accommodationist organization. But, again, remember the context. Never before had a politically aware lesbian organization been formed in the United States. Medical science almost universally condemned homosexuality as an abnormality. There were no political allies, there were no openly gay or lesbian public figures, and the idea of a homosexual minority had just recently entered the gay and lesbian consciousness. The DOB's very existence was, I would argue, radical.
1. Education of the variant, with particular emphasis on the psychological, physiological and sociological aspects, to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society in all its social, civic and economic implications--this to be accomplished by establishing and maintaining as complete a library as possible of both fiction and non-fiction literature on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions on pertinent subjects to be conducted by leading members of the legal, psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
2. Education of the public at large through acceptance first of the individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices; through public discussion meetings aforementioned; through dissemination of educational literature on the homosexual theme.
3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes to provide an equitable handling of cases involving this minority group, and promotion of these changes through due process of law in the state legislatures.
In the 1950s, tangible successes of the homophile movement were few and far between. But perhaps the DOB's most important contribution was its aforementioned magazine, the Ladder, which published lesbian-related fiction, essays, and research reports. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this publication, not only for lesbians in urban centers, but for rural lesbians who felt isolated and alone. The magazine, as detailed in Martin Meeker's important book Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s-1970s, was invaluable in forging a lesbian identity in these rural women who were unable to actually join a DOB chapter.
One of the first jobs Martin, Lyon, and others performed with that [donated] typewriter and filing cabinet was to begin producing their own newsletter and magazine. While four years separated the birth of the Mattachine idea from the publication of the first issue of the Mattachine Review, only one short year elapsed between the founding of the DOB and the appearance of the first issue of its periodical, the Ladder. And unlike the Mattachine Society, the DOB was not bound by cumbersome organizational rules regulating content and production. Indeed, the DOB was fortunate in its circumstances. Not only did the leaders have particularly relevant prior experience in publishing, but the Mattachine also offered the DOB use of its mimeograph machine. All the DOB needed was content and the time required to assemble and to print the magazine. However, other obstacles remained to be overcome, not least of which was financing the publication as well as distributing it to a large enough audience so that it would eventually become self-sufficient. In summer 1956 the twenty or so active participants decided to forge ahead with a magazine designed to end the perceived isolation among lesbians like themselves. Not only would the magazine facilitate wider access to the organization, it would accomplish this by providing representations of lesbianism that ran counter to what few images circulated in the mainstream public sphere in the early 1950s, images that cast lesbians as antisocial and that thus naturalized the isolation they may have felt.The decline of the DOB can be traced to the mid-1960s. After Lyon and Martin left the organization, Rita Laporte and Barbara Grier took the helm and began to shift the DOB's focus to second-wave feminist issues. The Ladder became much more militant, along with the organization as a whole, which caused a split among DOB members. Eventually, Laporte and Grier took the Ladder's subscription lists and left the organization, taking the Ladder with them. The DOB did not survive the tumult. The national organization folded, and although individual DOB chapters attempted to remain autonomous, the DOB eventually faded into the oblivion as lesbian-feminism came to the fore after Stonewall.
Harsh words have been said and written about the homophile movement in general, and the DOB in particular. John D'Emilio, one of the first historians to seriously study gay and lesbian history, writes in his pioneering book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970:
...part of the responsibility for the [homophile] movement's ineffectiveness must rest with the leaders of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Although in one way they had scorned their own fears by taking part in the movement, they still harbored anxieties and had internalized a belief in their own inferiority. As Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon recalled in an interview,There is much truth to this. Homophile leaders often did defer to the dominant medical opinion. They often did invite "experts" to speak to their organizations who told them that they were sick and abnormal. In many ways, the DOB has been rightly judged as an accommodationist organization.
It wasn't until [much later] that we realized we knew a whole lot more about homosexuality than Joe Psychiatrist and Joe Lawyer. Back then we didn't know. We needed support. We needed support from the establishment, from heterosexuals. We were at a point where [we asked] how we could be the ones to deal with the public. If you could only understand the fear! You just can't begin to realize the fear that was involved and how scared we were. And we [the leadership] were just as scared as everybody else.Fear, along with the lack of confidence in their own ability to speak with authority about homosexuality, created a crippling dependency. In their search for allies and their quest for legitimacy in the eyes of the establishment, movement leaders often bowed to an apparently superior professional wisdom that was part of the problem they needed to confront. It led them to open their publications to articles classing homosexuals with rapists, child molesters, and exhibitionists as sexual psychopaths, articles arguing that homosexuals were "almost invariably neurotic or psychotic" and advising gays at least to "try to get cured."
But we're looking at the DOB through a post-Stonewall lens. Many of us can't fathom a time when the common medical opinion was that gays and lesbians were sick. Many of us can't imagine a time as oppressive and brutal for gays and lesbians as the 1950s. So, while we should judge the DOB and other homophile organizations for their faults, we should also take care not to cast them out of the historical narrative completely or to understate their radicalism. After all, they were instrumental in forging a gay and lesbian identity and in creating an atmosphere in which Stonewall could even happen. We are right to remember the gay liberation years as the time when the most tangible change occurred, but we should also remember the early organizations, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, that made that liberation possible.
If you want to know more about the Daughters of Bilitis, I would highly recommend Marcia M. Gallo's insightful and exceptionally researched book, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement.